India is one of the biggest plastic waste generators in the world and according to the latest official figures, the country produces around 3.4 million tonnes (MT) of plastic waste in a year.
A recent report by the plastic industry noted that only 30 per cent of the plastic waste generated in India is getting recycled.
The remaining end up in landfills or water bodies, which will lie around for hundreds of years, becoming an environmental hazard.
What is multi-layered plastic?
While recycling has gained momentum in India in recent years, it has still largely failed to address the multi-layered plastic (MLP) issue.
As the name suggests, MLP has multiple layers; not all are plastic.
MLPs are everywhere – from your chips packet to chocolate wrappers, juice cartons, toothpaste tubes and even shampoo sachets.
Why is multi-layered plastic not recyclable?
Their complicated structure and presence of non-plastic components make MLPs nearly impossible to recycle, like regular plastic materials such as carry bags and PET bottles.
Ragpickers also often overlook MLPs, as most recyclers do not purchase them.
This would mean MPLs are left out of the recycling chain and often leak into the environment, adding to the plastic clogging the oceans or ending up in landfills.
Sunglasses from recycled MLP
This is what Ashaya, a Pune-based startup, is trying to address.
Ashaya recently announced the launch of its first product – the world’s first sunglass made out of recycled MLPs.
Called ‘without’, Ashaya’s premium sunglasses are a pioneering step in creating value-added products from MLPs that are often described as impossible to recycle.
Ashaya is a social enterprise that aims to increase the value of waste through technological and scientific innovations in recycling.
Quitting US corporate job to create social impact
It was founded by Anish Malpani, who quit his high-paying corporate job in the US to do something that can impact society.
“After working in corporate America for years, I realised that despite having everything imaginable, I wasn’t feeling satisfied. So I wanted to do something that will create a social impact. I didn’t set out to be a hero or something, but I wanted to do this for myself. After quitting my job in New York, I spent some time working with social entrepreneurs in Guatemala and Kenya to learn how they were able to make an impact,” Malpani told Indiatimes.
After returning to India in 2017, Malpani zeroed in on waste management and volunteered with an organisation in Aurangabad to gain first-hand knowledge about how the sector worked.
“We wanted to work on recycling MLPs because nobody else was working on this and this was a real problem. It is really difficult to do it and there is not much money to be made. We were not in this to make money but to solve a social and environmental issue,” he said.
How Ashaya recycled MLP
Starting in 2020, Malpani and his small team at Ashaya conducted hundreds of experiments before they finally cracked the code.
“Initially, we tried working with incubators, universities, etc., and quickly realised that it would not work as most of them did not have the machines we needed or were reluctant to let us use them. So we built our lab from scratch. In the first year alone, we did close to a thousand experiments. Finally, after nearly one-and-a-half years, we were confident with our material,” Malpani said.
After successfully recycling MLPs, the next major challenge the team at Ashaya faced was what to do with it.
“Since the output for recycling is comparatively less, we couldn’t sell that as a product. So instead of trying to sell 10 kgs of recycled plastic, we thought turning them into value-added products. Before we decided on sunglasses, we experimented with around 200 different items. We ended up choosing sunglasses as they are not so complicated and, at the same time, not so simple. We also felt that sunglasses would have a better marketing impact than regular products made from recycled plastic,” he explained.
Flooded with orders
And that worked; ever since Ashaya introduced the sunglasses last week, it has gone viral across social media, and the young startup has been flooded with orders.
“The response we got so far has been beyond our expectations. We were hoping to get 40-40 orders a day, but we are getting hundreds of orders every day. We have already exhausted our stock and are now telling customers that there will be a slight delay in shipping their orders,” he said.
Creating an impact
Ashaya has also ensured that the ragpickers, who are an integral part of their supply chain, benefit from the firm’s success.
“In the long run, we are focused on how to uplift the waste pickers out of multi-dimensional poverty. In the short term, we have decided that 10% of our sales will go to initiatives like providing scholarships to the children of waste pickers so that they get a chance to study and break the cycle of generational occupation. We also pay a premium for the MLP that we buy from them. We have also employed five waste pickers who work with us on a part-time basis,” he said.
While the sunglasses have been widely welcomed, Malpani agreed that a single product cannot solve the world’s MLP problem.
“Just the sunglasses can’t solve the problem. But this is a start; we are working on more products. We also need to scale up because that is when it can create a real impact. The goal isn’t products but optimising the business model to sustain the impact we have,” he said.
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